In 2012, Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson. This made me root for her hard.
I was rooting for K. Stewart to begin with. I like how awkward she is; I like that she seems to be really feeling the grunge movement twenty years late and that she doesn’t often smile for cameras. I thought she was great when she was tough and mumbly in Adventureland and when she was vulnerable and mumbly in Twilight. I like her with the same stubbornness that I often feel for actresses a lot of other people find annoying, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel among them. If enough people find a woman irritating, she’s usually doing something interesting.
And this year, Stewart did something really interesting. She ruined her own love story.
The public version of Stewart and Pattinson’s relationship tracks with the Twilight narrative so closely that the two are nearly inextricable from one another: Stewart/Bella embarrassed and stiff and sincere, Pattinson/Edward emo and attractively self-loathing. For the past four years they’ve played their relationship close to the vest, in a manner not unlike the way a human girl and a vampire man-boy might go about a little sexy subterfuge. Given these parallels, it’s easy to be skeptical about the timing of their much-publicized breakup, which brought on a wave of extra publicity for the final part of the One True Sparkly Vampire Saga.
But after watching a pale and pained Pattinson stumble through an appearance on The Daily Show, it was hard to believe that their relationship was just a publicity stunt. And if his heartbreak was real, Stewart’s infidelity was too.
What made me into a hardcore Stewart supporter wasn’t that she cheated on her boyfriend. I do not care about that either way. I started empathizing with her–and mentally supporting her in whatever choices she made, older married guy, yellow bra, the whole deal–because the internet turned against her so fast, and so harshly.
Of course, the fans who were furious at Stewart for cheating on Pattinson weren’t really her fans at all. They were Twilight fans enraged at the choice their stand-in had made. Stephanie Meyer gave Bella few defining traits so that the girls and women following her story could easily imagine themselves in her place. By cheating on Pattinson, Stewart wrecked the Twilight story, which meant that she wrecked a particularly conservative fantasy of love–one where an insecure, self-sacrificing woman is devoted to a possessive, controlling man and first loves last forever.
Bella would never cheat on Edward, Twilight fans cried, which was exactly the point. Bella is a paper-thin construction of virginal white womanhood, albeit one with frankly sexual impulses, so obviously she would never cheat on her true love. She’s supposed to give everything up for him. But Stewart, whatever her star text, is also a human being with a life of her own. She’s not duty-bound to follow anyone’s plot.
The scandal served as a reminder of how harshly our culture treats women who dare to stray from conventional romantic story lines. Our books and movies and magazines and music all tell women that finding a man who will love you forever is the be-all and end-all of personal achievement, and that you’d have to be a contemptible, selfish witch to screw it up. Stewart is 22 years old, yet people–not just Twihards, but the profusion of moral arbitrators who weighed in on her affair on websites and talk shows–seemed to expect her to stay with Pattinson forever, endlessly faithful, and grateful, and pure.
Stewart’s back together with Pattinson now, not that their reunion has done much to redeem her in the public eye. “It’s not a terrible thing if you’re either loved or hated,” she told Newsweek earlier this week. “But honestly, I don’t care ’cause it doesn’t keep me from doing my shit. And I apologize to everyone for making them so angry. It was not my intention.”
I keep thinking about those words. Stewart says she doesn’t care what people think of her, and that she won’t let being “the most vilified–and highly paid–actress in all the land” prevent her doing what she wants. Yet she also feels compelled to say that she’s sorry she made people angry, which just goes to show how effective the internet’s vigilante shame army can be. Stewart’s love life is not about us. But we insist on making it be, because she is a high-profile actress in a puritanical culture that jumps at the chance to condemn any woman who strays off the straight-and-narrow path. Shaming her shows all the other women out there precisely what they are not supposed to do. It is a very, very long list.
Last weekend I saw the new version of Anna Karenina, starring another often-maligned actress, Keira Knightley. I’d read the book in high school, and I remembered being wholly on Anna’s side back then. But I didn’t remember being so furious on her behalf. When Anna throws finally herself on the tracks, you’re supposed to feel the weight of her tragedy, but I was too angry to be sad. I couldn’t make up my mind what I hated more: Karenin’s cold-fish piety, or the way that Vronsky seduces and then emotionally abandons Anna with careless self-absorption. Once you’ve see him urging on that devoted and faltering race horse, then beat it when it’s broken its back, you know exactly what kind of man he is. I hated the society women too, hypocrites who carry on affairs themselves and then snub Anna when the only difference between them is that she won’t hide her infidelity.
The only person I didn’t hate, besides Anna, was the princess played by Michelle Dockery. “Anna is the best of us,” she declares at the beginning of the movie. She’s the only one authentic enough to sit by her friend’s side at the opera without fear of how the association will impact her own reputation. But even that is nothing compared to Anna’s courage, sitting in the theater box under hundreds of judging eyes with nothing but a fan to shield her. Her curls are piled into a hairstyle a hundred years out of date, and her off-the-shoulder dress must weigh at least half what she does. She looked awfully modern to me.